Talking with Trendsetters: David Hamlin, Executive Producer, VRtually There

Article ImageVirtual reality is becoming … well … reality, thanks to a host of new tools and people willing to test the limits of what the technology is capable of—and what the audience expects. Nowhere is that more true than at USA TODAY’s VRtually There, a weekly news show done entirely in virtual reality (VR). David Hamlin is part of the team that makes the show possible.

Hamlin is no stranger to producing video content. He worked for National Geographic for roughly 2 decades, and he says that every production has to deal with the same challenges—the challenges just grow exponentially when you’re dealing with VR. As the executive producer, Hamlin was lucky, he says, to walk into a situation with many skilled people. The VRtually There team may be among the most experienced VR staff anywhere, but when you’re dealing with such a new technology, it’s all relative.

“Many of the production and editorial challenges are the same: Is this a good story—a story worth telling?” Hamlin asks. “What makes it dramatic or interesting visually? Do we have a charismatic and articulate protagonist? Is the story producible—can we get the access we need?” Those are questions that every producer has to ask.

“But then there are uniquely 360/VR questions as well,” he continues. “Is the location visually dynamic and interesting in all directions—because the camera sees everything? Is there something about the story that makes it uniquely well-suited for 360/VR? Why would this story’s impact be lessened if we shot it in a traditional broadcast, 1920 x 1080, format? When a viewer watches this piece—what is the enjoyable spark in the experience that this story delivers and is uniquely exploited in VR? And what about subject-to-camera distance—can we get the camera close enough to the action so the subjects we’re documenting are sizable enough on screen?”

One of the biggest challenges for Hamlin and his team is the sheer amount of time that is necessary to stitch together the footage taken from each camera in a setup. He says that the technology to do that manually is coming, but it’s not quite ready. However, the technological hurdles are not a deterrent for viewers.

“At the moment we’re averaging 1.1 million viewers [per] episode across all formats—which basically means YouTube, Facebook, the USA TODAY app, and now Daydream,” says Hamlin. “We are always hoping to expand our presence across the digital landscape. I think it’s still fair to say most of viewers are coming to 360/VR content on desktop and mobile phone—but we’re always gearing our content for a spectacular headset experience. This is the future.”

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